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Kodiak local wins Congressional Gold Award Medal

Rafael Bitanga outside the KMXT studios. (Photo by Kayla Desroches / KMXT)
Rafael Bitanga outside the KMXT studios. (Photo by Kayla Desroches / KMXT)

After years of hard work, a young Kodiak man has achieved an award of high national esteem. No one on the Kodiak Island has ever received such an honor—and all before completing his first year of college. KMXT’s Dylan Simard tells us, the award is given by congress.

It’s known as the Congressional Award, given out to young Americans. If you want to compete, you register as a teenager and must set goals in these areas – community service, personal development, physical fitness. There’s also an exploration component, which requires travel.

Rafael Bitanga has just earned the award’s gold medal and says he’s just getting started.

“Going forward, I hope to be able to create a business in which I can come back to Kodiak and provide opportunities for the people working in the canneries, because both my parents were cannery laborers,” said Bitanga.

Although the award is noncompetitive, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a huge challenge for high school students, who register when they turn 13 and-and-a-half years old and have until their 24th birthday to complete their goals.

Rafael is a graduate of Kodiak High School and now a freshman at Cornell University, studying Hospitality Administration. He also runs a photography business on the side. He’s known in Kodiak for his wedding portraits and videos. He’s also produced documentaries. And this Congressional award is icing on the cake.

Normally it’s presented by the Speaker of the House, which this year would have been Nancy Pelosi. But due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, Rafael wasn’t able to receive the award in person. A disappointment but still, he says, that doesn’t take away from his feeling of accomplishment.

“Really, the congressional award allowed me to figure out how can I continue to take initiative and make a difference in my community,” said Bitanga.

After reaching and blowing past the 400 community service hour requirement- Rafael says that its closer to 1000 hours now- and completing 200 hours of personal development by learning cello and piano, Rafael then had to demonstrate physical fitness by participating on his high school’s track and field team. And of course, we can’t forget to mention the 5 days of travel required for the award, for which Rafael travelled with a friend to New York City.

Only after all of that could he take home the grand prize; the Congressional Gold Award Medal. It was the only one of its kind won in Alaska this year.

Rafael wants to help others who dream big.

“To all of the students who may be listening or will be listening to this in the future, I just want them to know that my name is searchable online, you can access my phone number, my email, my Facebook, my Instagram, please use me as a resource. I am here to be of support to all of you,” said Rafael.

One of the things Rafael has offered to do: to use his photography skills to take professional portraits of students, who like Rafael, are the first generation in their family to attend college.

Rafael says he will never forget his humble roots as an immigrant child from the Philippines. He had a lot to overcome. Maybe that’s why this congressional award means so much to him.